A milestone for local NAACP chapter

Published 6:15 pm Monday, August 13, 2018

History took center stage Saturday night as about 200 people gathered at the Vicksburg Convention Center to observe the centennial of the Vicksburg Branch of the NAACP; the organization’s first branch in Mississippi.

“When you look at our 100-year charter, you had two blacks and seven whites that formed the (national) NAACP, and what they understood, and what we understand today, is unless the laws are written, they don’t count,” Vicksburg Branch president John Shorter said.

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“That’s why whatever we do, when we fight for change, we do it through the court system. We go through the court system to make things final.”

“The NAACP’s mission is still profound today, to fight for the rights of all,” Mayor George Flagg Jr. said before presenting Shorter with a framed copy of the branch’s 1918 charter and a proclamation declaring Saturday as NAACP Vicksburg Day in Vicksburg.

Recalling the Biblical story of Nehemiah, Flaggs said Nehemiah was given a charter by God to build Jerusalem.

“It had to have been like that 100 years ago for the NAACP; as they were building, people were calling them crazy, stupid, and all kinds of haters around them, but Nehemiah kept building. So NAACP, as Nehemiah said, and as Nehemiah did, keep building. A change is going to come if you keep building.”

District 55 Rep. Oscar Denton called on people to support and work the NAACP, adding, “The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.

“When I think back to what I can do, and I wonder what I can do,” he said, calling on people to look at themselves and “just do a little bit more, and let’s see what we can do together.”

In perspective

Denton also presented Shorter with a House resolution honoring the Vicksburg Branch on it anniversary.

Featured speaker Dr. Bettye Gardner, a Vicksburg native and professor emeritus at Coppin State University, put the celebration in perspective by focusing on three men involved in the founding of the branch and the atmosphere of the United States at the time.

Gardner said the three men, dentist Dr. David Foote, physician Dr. John Miller and Dr. William Harrison, “Were quite a force. They were truly activists when they didn’t have to be. What is significant about these three men is that they were willing to sacrifice their lives and their fortunes to challenge the racist practices of this period.

She said 1918 in America was known as the Jim Crow era for the Jim Crow laws, laws written to enforce segregation in the south.

“W.E.B. DuBois in 1903, defined what he called ‘the problem of the 20th century’ would be the problem of color line, and this color line was not just southern; it was a national thing,” she said, adding there were race riots across the country in cities like Chicago, Illinois, and other areas.

By the time America was involved in World War I, she said, Vicksburg had an established middle black middle class with professionals — doctors, lawyers and other businesses, including two black banks and Mississippi’s first licensed black-owned funeral home.

Professional men like Foote, Miller and Harrison, were well educated and making a difference in Vicksburg. When the war came, Gardner said, there was an effort to recruit people for combat.

“They needed men and they needed money, and this included black men and black money,” she said, and the leading white businessmen and government officials in Vicksburg began encouraging blacks to enlist and contribute money for the war effort.

With racial tensions in the city increasing, Foote, Miller and Harrison began meetings to form the NAACP branch.

The white community’s War Savings Committee met with blacks asking them to contribute, and at one point asked the black leaders to contribute $1,000.

After Miller hesitated and raised cited racial problems in the city and asked a committee member what he was going to do about the problems and how much the man would be contributing, a group of men went to Miller’s home, arrested him and paraded him through town on a rail with a sign saying he was disloyal, Gardner said.

Miller and later Foote and Harrison eventually left Vicksburg and never returned.

“The takeaway is that foundations matter,” Gardner said. “It matters that we have institutions, organizations, and they are really the anchors. Without them, you really don’t have a society that’s functioning.”

The founders of the Vicksburg Branch of the NAACP in 1918, she said, could have chosen to live their lives very differently and be successful, “But they knew, even then, that in our terminology today, that black lives matter.

“The NAACP has always fought those issues involving African Americans, whether it was better schools, voting rights, criminal justice reform, whatever it is.”

She urged people attending the celebration to join the NAACP, adding, “It is critical that the Vicksburg Branch be revitalized by a new generation that will continue the mission and the vision of the founders and those who came after the founders.

“There is no more powerful force than people who are steeped in their history, and there is no higher cause than honoring our struggle and our ancestors by remembering one thing that never changes is our need to draw inspiration and guidance from the past.”

About John Surratt

John Surratt is a graduate of Louisiana State University with a degree in general studies. He has worked as an editor, reporter and photographer for newspapers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. He has been a member of The Vicksburg Post staff since 2011 and covers city government. He and his wife attend St. Paul Catholic Church and he is a member of the Port City Kiwanis Club.

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